The politics of concrete are less divisive, but more corrosive. The main problem here is inertia. Once this material binds politicians, bureaucrats and construction companies, the resulting nexus is almost impossible to budge.
Party leaders need the donations and kickbacks from building firms to get elected, state planners need more projects to maintain economic growth, and construction bosses need more contracts to keep money rolling in, staff employed and political influence high. Hence the self-perpetuating political enthusiasm for environmentally and socially dubious infrastructure projects and cement-fests like the Olympics, the World Cup and international exhibitions.
At first it was a cheap material to rebuild cities ravaged by fire bombs and nuclear warheads in the second world war. Then it provided the foundations for a new model of super-rapid economic development: new railway tracks for Shinkansen bullet trains, new bridges and tunnels for elevated expressways, new runways for airports, new stadiums for the Olympics and the Osaka Expo, and new city halls, schools and sports facilities. This kept the economy racing along at near double-digit growth rates until the late s, ensuring employment remained high and giving the ruling Liberal Democratic party a stranglehold on power.
The political heavyweights of the era — men such as Kakuei Tanaka, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Noboru Takeshita — were judged by their ability to bring hefty projects to their hometowns. Huge kickbacks were the norm. Yakuza gangsters, who served as go-betweens and enforcers, also got their cut.
Bid-rigging and near monopolies by the big six building firms Shimizu, Taisei, Kajima, Takenaka, Obayashi, Kumagai ensured contracts were lucrative enough to provide hefty kickbacks to the politicians. The doken kokka was a racket on a national scale. But there is only so much concrete you can usefully lay without ruining the environment. In his book Dogs and Demons, the author and longtime Japanese resident Alex Kerr laments the cementing over of riverbanks and hillsides in the name of flood and mudslide prevention.
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That is the reality of modern Japan, and the numbers are staggering. He said the amount of concrete laid per square metre in Japan is 30 times the amount in America, and that the volume is almost exactly the same. Traditionalists and environmentalists were horrified — and ignored. Everyone knew the grey banked rivers and shorelines were ugly, but nobody cared as long as they could keep their homes from being flooded. Which made the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami all the more shocking. At coastal towns such as Ishinomaki, Kamaishi and Kitakami, huge sea walls that had been built over decades were swamped in minutes.
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Almost 16, people died, a million buildings were destroyed or damaged, town streets were blocked with beached ships and port waters were filled with floating cars. It was a still more alarming story at Fukushima, where the ocean surge engulfed the outer defences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and caused a level 7 meltdown. Briefly, it seemed this might become a King Canute moment for Japan — when the folly of human hubris was exposed by the power of nature.
But the concrete lobby was just too strong. Construction firms were once again ordered to hold back the sea, this time with even taller, thicker barriers. Their value is contested. Engineers claim these metre-high walls of concrete will stop or at least slow future tsunamis, but locals have heard such promises before.
The area these defences protect is also of lower human worth now the land has been largely depopulated and filled with paddy fields and fish farms. Environmentalists say mangrove forests could provide a far cheaper buffer. Tellingly, even many tsunami-scarred locals hate the concrete between them and the ocean. He described them as an abandonment of Japanese history and culture. And now the Japanese government has decided to shut out the sea. T here was an inevitability about this. Across the world, concrete has become synonymous with development.
In theory, the laudable goal of human progress is measured by a series of economic and social indicators, such as life-expectancy, infant mortality and education levels. But to political leaders, by far the most important metric is gross domestic product, a measure of economic activity that, more often than not, is treated as a calculation of economic size.
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GDP is how governments assess their weight in the world. And nothing bulks up a country like concrete. That is true of all countries at some stage. During their early stages of development, heavyweight construction projects are beneficial like a boxer putting on muscle. But for already mature economies, it is harmful like an aged athlete pumping ever stronger steroids to ever less effect.
During the Asian financial crisis, Keynesian economic advisers told the Japanese government the best way to stimulate GDP growth was to dig a hole in the ground and fill it. Preferably with cement. The bigger the hole, the better. This meant profits and jobs. The Hoover Dam alone required 3. Construction firms claimed it would outlast human civilisation.
But that was lightweight compared to what is now happening in China, the concrete superpower of the 21st century and the greatest illustration of how the material transforms a culture a civilisation intertwined with nature into an economy a production unit obsessed by GDP statistics. The speed at which these materials are being mixed is perhaps the most astonishing statistic of the modern age: since , China has poured more cement every three years than the US managed in the entire 20th century. Every major city has a floor-sized scale model of urban development plans that has to be constantly updated as small white plastic models are turned into mega-malls, housing complexes and concrete towers.
Ghost malls, half-empty towns and white elephant stadiums are a growing sign of wasteful spending. Empty, crumbling structures are not just an eyesore, but a drain on the economy and a waste of productive land. Ever greater construction requires ever more cement and steel factories, discharging ever more pollution and carbon dioxide. As the Chinese landscape architect Yu Kongjian has pointed out, it also suffocates the ecosystems — fertile soil, self-cleansing streams, storm-resisting mangrove swamps, flood-preventing forests — on which human beings ultimately depend.
Yu has led the charge against concrete, ripping it up whenever possible to restore riverbanks and natural vegetation. In his influential book The Art of Survival, he warns that China has moved dangerously far from Taoist ideals of harmony with nature.
Yu has been consulted by government officials, who are increasingly aware of the brittleness of the current Chinese model of growth. But their scope for movement is limited. The initial momentum of a concrete economy is always followed by inertia in concrete politics. Instead, China is doing what countless other nations have done, exporting its environmental stress and excess capacity overseas.
T his will almost certainly mean more criminal activity. As well as being the primary vehicle for super-charged national building, the construction industry is also the widest channel for bribes.
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In many countries, the correlation is so strong, people see it as an index: the more concrete, the more corruption. No country is immune, but in recent years, Brazil has revealed most clearly the jawdropping scale of bribery in the industry. The progress between these stages was impressively rapid. A million cubic metres of concrete were poured on the highlands site in just 41 months to encase the soil and erect new edifices for ministries and homes. The Brazilian operators boast the With the military in power, the press censored and no independent judiciary, there was no way of knowing how much of the budget was siphoned off by the generals and contractors.
But the problem of corruption has become all too apparent since in the post-dictatorship era, with virtually no party or politician left untainted. Although wanted by Interpol , Maluf evaded justice for decades and was elected to a number of senior public offices. But his reputation as the most corrupt man in Brazil has been overshadowed in the past five years by Operation Car Wash , an investigation into a vast network of bid-rigging and money laundering. Prosecutors said Odebrecht alone had paid bribes to politicians and 26 political parties. As a result of these revelations, one government fell, a former president of Brazil and the vice president of Ecuador are in prison, the president of Peru was forced to resign, and dozens of other politicians and executives were put behind bars.
The corruption scandal also reached Europe and Africa. It was so huge that when Maluf was finally arrested in , nobody batted an eyelid. S uch corruption is not just a theft of tax revenue, it is a motivation for environmental crime: billions of tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere for projects of dubious social value and often pushed through — as in the case of Belo Monte — against the opposition of affected local residents and with deep concerns among environmental licensing authorities.
Although the dangers are increasingly apparent, this pattern continues to repeat itself. India and Indonesia are just entering their high-concrete phase of development. Over the next 40 years, the newly built floor area in the world is expected to double. Some of that will bring health benefits. But each wheelbarrow of concrete also tips the world closer to ecological collapse. Chatham House predicts urbanisation, population growth and economic development will push global cement production from 4 to 5bn tonnes a year.
If developing countries expand their infrastructure to current average global levels, the construction sector will emit gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by , according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.
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